For the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook is quickly becoming the elephant in the room. Now that Durant is gone, what does OKC do with its lone remaining superstar? There are really three options:
1. Trade Westbrook immediately: This, according to Bleacher Report, appears to be the way the Thunder are leaning, with the Boston Celtics emerging as the most likely partner. This would not be the worst move for OKC, whether they ultimately dance with Boston or another team. Perhaps if you lock in on a certain team and aggressively pursue their assets, you might be able to pressure them into the deal you want because Westbrook is just so enticing. Any owner/GM who realizes he can get a player of that caliber may be willing to overpay in the heat of the moment.
2. Trade Westbrook at the deadline, or sometime during next season: This is the traditional approach. You work the market, drive up the price and eventually make the best move. The Thunder never telegraph trades; their biggest moves come out of nowhere, as it did when they moved Serge Ibaka this summer for a package including Victor Oladipo. But this approach carries real risk. The later it gets into the season, the more desperate you look to get rid of a guy you're probably going to lose in the offseason anyway. Teams will feast on that and you can end up taking a low-ball deal just to cut your losses.
3. Go all out to keep Westbrook: You only get a player like Westbrook (or Durant) once or twice in roughly 15 years and there is no real path to title contention without a player like that, if not multiple players like that. Problem is, Westbrook is, of course, a free agent next summer, so the Thunder can throw everything at keeping him and then end up losing him anyway, meaning they then would've lost two franchise players in consecutive years. It's hard to imagine a small-market organization recovering from a hit like that any time soon.
With all that said, if the Thunder do decide to move Westbrook, there will clearly be a robust market for his services. Below is a list of eight teams, beginning with the reported favorite Boston, that would be solid landing spots for the current Thunder point guard.
Forever in search of the superstar trade, the Celtics make sense. Again, Bleacher Report says they are seen as the most likely destination for Westbrook, given their assets and where they are as a franchise. They want, and need, that marquee guy, as Al Horford can't be the best player on a championship team. Westbrook is the kind of player Danny Ainge has been building assets to acquire -- a superstar in a frustrated situation on the block, though there are some caveats.
For one, Ainge is really considerate of upsetting locker-room balance, which is why he hasn't bowled over the Kings with an offer for Boogie Cousins. Then there's the guard situation. After everything you've built with Isaiah Thomas, do you really bail on him if the Thunder demand him back? If not, can you play Thomas and Westbrook together?
For Westbrook, the Celtics feature a great coach for a historic organization with a good young roster and a second star in Horford. Plus, he gets out of the Western Conference and would be one LeBron injury away from the Finals every season. Do the Celtics have a better organization and roster than the Thunder? It's debatable, but they bring a lot to the table.
In terms of what it could offer OKC, Boston has the Nets' unprotected first-round pick in 2018 and can swap picks in 2017. They have Thomas, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown. You would need a serious configuration of those players to get Westbrook, as none of them project as a superstar on their own, and the Nets' picks, as good as they look now, could look radically different with the actually competent Sean Marks now running their show.
Ainge has always looked for highway robbery. Crowder has been a sticking point in several reported deals, because of his value relative to contract. The Celtics can also wait for Westbrook in free agency, but they just tried to get Durant that same way and here they are. Fact is, Horford was the first marquee free agent they've signed in a long time. Can they risk not getting Westbrook when he is the exact kind of player Ainge positioned his team to acquire?
The most logical destination. They have plenty of young, talented players who were drafted high. More importantly, they have potential superstar talents in Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. Their draft-pick situations are compromised, but they have players and could provide picks down the line to grease the wheels. You also wonder if Westbrook, who is from Southern California and attended UCLA, would favor a return home. He would get to take over as the star who picked up the franchise from the ashes without dealing with Kobe Bryant's shadow.
The problem: Why would the Lakers give up assets to get Westbrook now, when they could just look to sign him in free agency in 2017? Two thoughts on that:
1. Whoever trades for him likely keeps him. Whoever trades for him retains his bird rights to re-sign him to a five-year deal for more money, plus players aren't going to want to leave twice in a year. Presumably if you get him now, you know he's in on this for the foreseeable future, and if the Lakers cannot convince him to stay they are even further away from a return to even a semblance of glory than they thought.
Plus, it's much easier to sell Westbrook on the perks of living in L.A. and being a part of the Lakers when he's already there than it is to sell him on it as a free agent. That's why LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and everyone else who has been a marquee free agent over the last two years has turned them down.
2. If you do not trade for him, you risk him going off the market, a risk that teams in the doldrums should avoid. Yes, the talent for the Lakers is great, and young. But none of their players project to be Westbrook.
The Lakers are likely to convey their 2017 and 2019 draft picks, so you're looking at at least the 2021 and 2023 draft picks, but also have to figure out who else goes for Westbrook. Ingram and Russell? Russell and Randle? Ingram and Randle? Clarkson, Randle and Ingram? It's a tough question because any one of Russell, Randle or Ingram could be a superstar, though not at Westbrook's level. Those players are rare. Pick the wrong one to part ways with, and yuo can set your franchise back yet again.
This one sounds crazy until you consider ongoing talk about disruption of team chemistry and the possibility of a new future. There are three angles.
1: Trade Blake Griffin: They could pair Westbrook with Chris Paul in a "fire and ice" backcourt, and give OKC a star player that went to the University of Oklahoma in return, given the talk of Griffin being potentially on the block (which the Clippers have denied).
2: Three-team trade involving Chris Paul: Send CP3 to another contender, send assets to Oklahoma City with Westbrook heading to the Clippers. That way Westbrook gets to live in L.A. without dealing with the Lakers' stench and rebuilding project. He joins an instant contender, one with other stars in his age group. He fits perfectly with Griffin and Jordan, more so than Paul, even if shooting becomes a problem outside of J.J. Redick.
3: Trade DeAndre Jordan and Redick to OKC (or elsewhere to get a combination of assets): That would put Paul, Westbrook and Griffin together. That's a crazy amount of athleticism and star power ... and it also doesn't fit. There's just no way for Westbrook and Paul to play together cohesively.
This whole idea is far fetched, but it's a team in the L.A. market that can deal a star to get a star back, and that matters.
The Nuggets offer one of the best asset combinations -- any two of Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with future picks (they have all theirs), or Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried as veteran components to go to OKC or elsewhere as part of a larger deal. Will Barton on a contract steal. Wilson Chandler, valuable and versatile, and they have the Grizzlies' 2017 pick.
The problem is Westbrook is unlikely to re-sign in Denver. It's a monster risk for the Nuggets to take on Westbrook in an attempt to make the playoffs, hoping magic happens. The Nuggets' front office is resolute in looking to avoid making a bad situation worse, which is what they would do by depleting their assets and risking losing the asset they gain in return.
Denver needs a star, but it has to build the right environment to take one on first. Still, if they could swap half their assets for Westbrook and the other for another star player, it's plausible, if unlikely.
I know, I know.
But look, Westbrook loves fashion, and New York is the fashion capital of the world. They have things to trade here, too. If they could send Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose (on an expiring contract) elsewhere, to get Westbrook back, wouldn't they? If they could send Kristaps Porzingis, as good as he is, along with a future draft pick (again, they just finally gave up their last first-round obligation) for Westbrook to pair with Anthony, wouldn't they? They're cap strapped and always think short-term, but that also means they have sizable contracts to make a deal work and the right mentality to always pursue short-term solutions.
Westbrook would be a perfect culture fit in New York, with a media-evasion team in a huge market on a big stage next to another star. You'd have to find someone willing to act as a third party to give up assets to make the Thunder whole in order to get compromised assets from New York back, but if you could, there's at least a conceptual framework in place that this makes sense.
The best up-and-coming team. Pairing Westbrook with Karl-Anthony Towns (and Andrew Wiggins if not traded) along with Tom Thibodeau would be a move to instant contention. Westbrook would put them in a new category, and the Wolves can offer Ricky Rubio (very good but limited), Zach LaVine (untapped potential), Kris Dunn (who has looked like a future star at Summer League), draft picks and expiring contracts.
If it wasn't for the Wolves' relative youth, this makes a lot of sense. But Westbrook is ready to compete for a championship now, and as good as Towns and Wiggins are, they may not be there for another three to four years. There's also the "convincing Russell Westbrook to re-sign on a four-year deal to live in Minnesota most of the year" thing, which is tough.
Harden and Westbrook together again! Westbrook in a Mike D'Antoni offense! Harden and Westbrook taking turns giving half-effort on defense! The Rockets have all their first-rounders to offer past this season, plus Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon (if the trade is done mid-season), though they're on big contracts. They could also give up Clint Capela and other veteran components.
There's probably not enough here to get the Thunder interested, especially after having to give up Harden to Houston. But the idea is interesting.
I know, right? But look, think of this: You're Westbrook, the Warriors stole your partner in crime, and that former partner in crime kicked you while you were down via the media on his way out the door. You want to punish Durant and the Warriors, you want to beat them specifically, you want to win titles.
Now, you're the Cavaliers. You love Kyrie Irving, he hit the winning shot for the title and is a phenomenal, building-block player. But is he better than Westbrook? Probably not. You'd at least have to pick up the phone if you're David Griffin, even if it is ultimately too much of a gamble and his game doesn't mesh well enough with LeBron's.
The Cavs couldn't construct an offer with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, and their pick assets won't be good enough to interest the Thunder or a third team.